From the Iron Gates into Bulgaria – How far can we go?
13th September 2018
The last part of the summer bike trip – We are running out of time, but the best days are yet to come…
18th of August 2018 – Vinci to Tekija, ca 100km
It is the heat of the sun that finally forces me out of my sleeping bag, turning its cozy embrace into an atmosphere more akin to a Jetboil. Hours earlier, I had witnessed part of a gorgeous sunrise over the Danube before dozing off once more. Having set up camp late the night before, and needing a solid 8 hours per night in order to function, I am barely ready for the day when the sun and my cycling companion insist I get up. Dani has already cycled from Vinci into Golubac and returned with fresh bread by the time I am changing into my cycling clothes and brushing my teeth next to the gleaming river.
The temperature is already hovering in the high twenties and we seek out the shade for the day’s first breakfast. Leaving our most scenic wıld camp to date behind, we pass my favourite water fountain yet again, cycling the now familiar route for the third (or, in Dani’s case, fifth) time into Golubac.
Further along the Danube, we have our obligatory first stopover of the day way too early but I cherish my coffee and elevenses immensely. Right from the beginning, winding alongside the river, the day’s route promises to be spectacular. We have been looking forward to this stretch leading through the Iron Gates Natural Park for the last few days and as sure as sunshine follows rain, my mood is up again and my pain levels low. I am finally beginning to feel more at home in the saddle and the trusty red Rockhopper I am riding carries momentum like panniers full of bliss, light as feathers.
Soon, meandering our way out of Golubac past its stunning and apparently famous castle, we pass a little familiar-looking restaurant hotel. We realise that we know it from the pictures that the German woman has shown us the day before. As expected, we didn’t get to stay but its familiarity is reassuring nontheless.
The road undulates through breathtaking rock formations and past an abandoned wooden building with the dimensions of a skyscraper and the vibe of a treehouse. I have to fight the desire to stay and rennovate it, it looks that inspiring, safely nestled in its rugged surroundings right by the Danube.
Despite the physical exertion, I barely notice the switchbacks and uphills, distracted by the stunning panorama all around us. However, where there’s roads in the mountains, there’s tunnels, too, and while most of them are pleasantly short, some stretch out for several hundred metres. Entering in bright daylight, I don’t think much of the first longer one I encounter, until I can no longer see the road in front of me. If I happen upon a pothole or a rock now, I am screwed, it flashes through my mind. Without any lights or Hi-Vis on, it occurs to me that I am just as visible to motorists coming up behind me as the road is to me: not in the slightest. That’s about the moment when the alarm bells start ringing and the adrenaline kicks in. No longer caring much about the potholes, I accelerate to a new record speed of easily 35 km/h. I just need to get out of this tunnel, now. AFter what feels like an eternity (realistically, it couldn’t have been more than 20 to 30 seconds) and with no car passing me, I can finally see daylight at the end of the tunnel and the smooth road is clearly visible once more, guiding me faithfully through the mountains. İt’s over, İ think, as the next couple of tunnels are short enough that I can see the end before I even enter, until another, longer one, swallows me and I find myself blind and unprotected once more. In addition to that, this tunnel leads me around a barely visible bend, turning gently into the hill. Trying to gauge its radius, I follow the curve, seeking a balance between speed – to get out into the light as soon as possible – and caution – the curve and the possibility of potholes are nothing I can allow myself to miss. My heart and my wheels are still racing at 30 miles an hour when I make it out the other side and stop, uncharacteristically in the middle of an uphill section, at the next best spot by the roadside, to my lights, reflectors and Hi-Vis out of my panniers. The adrenaline pumping through my veins has sped me up enough that I am starting to worry by the time Dani finally catches up with me. We share some foraged apples – he has stuffed one of his panniers with huge amounts the day before, easily adding another 5kg to his weight total – and other snacks. Well illuminated, we make it safely through the remaining 12 or 13 tunnels on our way.
It is at Donji Milanovac where we eventually decide on a longer break in the afternoon, craving the beer-of-the-day as well as some sustenance. I am not sure who spots the black cars decorated with white ribbons in front of the bar restaurant at the village entrance first but it soon becomes obvious that there is a wedding in full swing. Expecting to be turned down as this will likely be a private event, we are apprehensive as we approach the terrace outside the big restaurant, sweaty and dirty with two fully loaded, colourful touring bikes. To our great astonishment, a waiter clad in a black suit and a crisp white shirt waves us closer, explaining that we can leave the bikes around the side of the house, next to a massive stack of fire wood.
A few moments later, bikes secured and valuables tucked into our cycling clothes, we find ourselves in the middle of an extremely casual and equally joyful traditional Serbian wedding. Two foreign, sweaty cyclists drinking beers in the middle of the room seems to be nothing out of the ordinary, and so, despite our obvious outsider-status, we feel hardly out of place at all as we observe the celebrations around us, order some food and gradually become more tipsy while the waiter rushes around us. Various party guests sing folk songs and initiate group dances, switching effortlessly between singing into an array of microphones, tending to their children, and smoking. Some have come in jeans and t-shirt while others are in full black tie attire. Despite our best efforts, we cannot guess who is getting married and conclude it could be anyone, from the woman in the fancy red dress to the smiling chap showing of his beer belly in a stained, sleeveless white shirt.
Watching the dances, enjoying the music, we stay longer than we had planned, We decide to order cake for desert and our hopes of being treated to a slice of wedding cake come true. After more beers than strictly necessary and having spent over one and a half hours at one of the most gleeful weddings I have ever had the pleasure to attend (I used to perform at weddings – few were as good as this one, although I am not entirely sure whether not sharing a language with the guests has aided or taken away from this impression), we are sufficiently tipsy, emotional and refuelled to carry on until late, Ever the lightweight, I can feel the beer sloshing around in my body for the next half hour. Giggling to myself and somewhat sentimental, I am thoroughly enjoying the ride. With every kilometre after Donji Milanovac, the road leads us deeper into the Iron Gate Natural Park territory and the scenery becomes even more enchanting. To our left, just on the other side of the Danube, lies Romania, its closeness confusing our phones that keep informing us relentlessly about changes in time zone and tariff.
The hills hug the river until it narrows down to about 150m in width, the Danube’s narrowest point, flanked by cliffs of up to 300m, We pass through the various gorges and stop frequently to take pictures as dusk falls, Having held back the last few days, I cannot help but ask for a handstand picture next to the last gorge on what appears to be the last uphill, With the energy of a successful handstand and the stunning gorges around me, I am actually looking forward to the big hill that lies ahead and after a handful of pictures, I turn to Dani and announce proudly; If you will excuse me, I’ve got a hill to smash!
Of course he still overtakes me with ease on the uphill, hardly breaking a sweat, less than a minute into my effort, but it doesn’t matter, I am enjoying the hills today, cherishing them in a way I hadn’t before.
It is late again by the time we finally realise that we won’t find a hostel for the night and we pass out next to a quarry some two or three kilometres before reaching the village of Tekija. As far as wild camping spots go, we are quite exposed, near the road and surrounded by brambles and mosquitoes. The fatigue and the disappointed hope of a shower get the better of me and, finding rest close to midnight, I am grumpy and miserable but even in this state I have to admit that it was entirely and absolutely worth it.
19th of August 2018 – Tekija to Vidin, ca 135km
Waking again with the heat of the late morning sun, not a minute too early, I realise that Dani’s bike is gone. So is he, but before my sleepy brain has a chance to kick into gear, he reappears once again with fresh breakfast, chocolate croissants, iced coffee and a selection of fruits and vegetables. It is Sunday, the last day of our bike trip as I will have to take the night train from Sofia to Istanbul at Monday night to make it in time to meet Simon in Istanbul on Tuesday. We have run out of time and Sofia is still a good 300km away, a distance I can’t yet cover on a bike in a day. We decide to aim for Vidin instead, less than 30km from the Bulgarian border.
Trying to shelter Dani from the headwind, I am fighting my way out of Tekija as he is battling with hayfever. The going is tough and we pause in Kladovo for a second breakfast around midday. We have Turkish coffee and some Cevapci in a slightly shabby looking café. When Dani goes inside to pay and retrieve the electronics we kindly asked to recharge, I decide to do a bunch of overdue handstand drills in front of the visitors’ terrace. My form has suffered from the lack of consistent training in this past week full of cycling. I patiently repeat some poor tucks and low straddles, focusing on my lines when I hear people shout Brava! from the café. As I come out of my handstand, a timid little girl in a flowery white dress with a yellow bow in her long brown hair stands on the other side of the café’s fence. She looks at me, intrigued. I smile and proceed to do more handstands. After a brief moment of inverted consideration, I open the backpack in my left pannier, fishing for the stuffed rubber cover of my passport. I pull out a Handstands on the Road sticker and wave the girl over, handing it to her. She takes it and runs back to a huge table around which some 10 or 12 adults are seated. We try and communicate; a man at the table asks in broken English where I am from. Germany, I answer, to make things simple. As I don’t speak Serbian, we don’t get very far. All I can say is Hvala which means Thank you. Another adult translates the little girl’s question for my name. She is still looking at me. It takes two attempts to introduce myself as Miriam. I learn that the girl’s name is Sarah. A busty lady in a poppy coloured blouse with nice hair explains that the big group around the small girl is actually from Italy. They smile and laugh when I return their kindness and compliments with Grazie! Grazie mille! After a while, Dani pulls me aside and asks if we should carry on and I agree, thinking of the miles ahead.
Arrividerci, Sarah, Bellissima! I shout at the cheerful lot as we cycle off (only to stop for ice cream some 100m down the road). Despite the recent lack of training, my handstands are good enough for Sarah, good enough to inspire a little girl, and at that moment, that’s all that counts.
On our way from Kladovo to Negotin, I cycle ahead, stopping here and there at water fountains next to the river, trying desperately to get some more handstands in. I train for 10 minutes, cycle for another 10, train again. After a while, Dani doesn’t catch up with me and I worry that I may have taken a wrong turn despite the signs being clear and there not being any wrong turns to take… it is the first day that I lose him. Some 14km before Negotin, the next town on our way, I wait for a long time, do more handstand drills, tucks, straddles, pikes – still no sign of Dani. At this point I am almost certain that he must have overtaken me somehow, but I wait some more and eventually turn back, trying to find him.
I send him a text message, asking him to wait at the first café in Negotin if we don’t find each other before then. My battery is almost empty when I turn back, asking random strangers if they have seen a man on a touring bike. Nobody gives a useful answer and I eventually decide to carry on to Negotin by myself. At the next water fountain, I refill my bottle with some clear liquid that tastes disconcertingly of soil when he catches me up. His allergy made cycling hard and I had been faster than anticipated, but we eventually cycle into Negotin together in the afternoon, ready for lunch. While Dani scouts out the options, I make friends with a stray dog until he returns with a selection of ice cream, deserts, böreks, chocolate, soft drinks and beer. Healthy nutrition is not the theme of the day but we burn enough calories not to worry overly.
As we leave Negotin in the vague direction of the Bulgarian border, the red, grey, purple, ochre tones of the sky remind me of the dirt tracks we had passed only a few hours prior. Dani suggests that they look rather smoky, and sure enough some 10 minutes later we cycle past burned down fields into thick wafts of smoke and ash as the fire is still raging on the hilly fields right next to the road. Kilometres later, the sunflowers still hang their heads in shame at their lazy landsmen who are burning the crops they don’t want to harvest. The fires, Dani tells me, are lit on purpose. The small road to the border is empty safe the odd abandoned-looking petrol station. At one of them, a few people are milling around and Dani gets off the bike to find out whether the border crossing we are approaching is passable. The confirm and we carry on through what is best described as post-apocalyptic no-man’s land: the perfect scenery for a black and white silent film. Some places, some moments in life, feel so surreal, I think.
The border crossing itself is unspectacular and we pass the two small office huts, one on the Serbian side, one on the Bulgarian, wıthout any major delay. Dani seems concerned as we are carrying a bunch of tins full of meat pâté but nobody takes a vetted interest in the contents of our panniers. Before the sun begins to set, we are in Bulgaria, and the first few locals we see are waving and smiling as we are taking pictures of old farms, the road and the signs. It feels good to have crossed another border, and thankfully, this time I am in much less pain than at my crossing into Serbia.
It is dark by the time we reach Vidin and I am sore and tired when we take a break on a beautiful square. Vidin seems empty, hardly anyone is out on the streets late on a Sunday night, and the hotel we eventually decide on has peculiarly rude staff and dark rooms but it is more than good enough when I finally get to shower after two days of cycling. I wash my clothes in a no-pressure, random-temperature shower until the bathroom resembles a steam room. Then I transform our bedroom into a gigantic washing line, taking the coat hangers from the wardrobe and decorating the dysfunctional AC unit as well as some cable guards on the wall with my damp laundry (It worked – after a long sleep, everything had dried and smelled less horrendous.)
Over a tired picnic dinner by the Danube, Dani tells me that he won’t be coming to Sofia with me the next day, Logistically, it makes no sense for him. In my exhausted state, the news hit me harder than I let on, leaving me less than 12 hours with someone I have spent nearly 24 hour a day with for the past eight days.
We look out at the Danube, a funky bar boat next to us, Romania seems close, yet far away, just like the days that lie ahead. Suspended between the end of the bike trip and the beginning of the next adventure, neither my brain nor my heart have time to catch up with reality before I fall asleep that day.
In the end, I haven’t quite made it to Istanbul by bike this time – not because I didn’t try, but because we ran out of time, for now. I would love to finish the remaining journey from Vidin to Istanbul one day. However, on my first ever long distance bike trip I have still covered around 850km in 8 days, averaging over 100km a day with no rest days. The shortest day was about 35km and the longest more than 200km. I know a thing or two about bikes that I didn’t before, and a thing or two about myself that I didn’t, either. Needless to say that the first part of the summer adventure was a full success!
More on how the journey across Bulgaria and Turkey continues next time – Night Trains and Other Misadventures is coming up soon! Until then…